The situation for the poor improved in the second half of the seventeenth century. Prices fell compared with wages, and fewer people asked for help from the parish. But it was the middle groups who continued to do well. Many who started life as yeoman farmers or traders became minor gentry or merchants. Part of their success resulted from a strong interest in farming improvements, which could now be studied in the many new books on the subject.
By the middle of the century the government had already begun to control the trade in cereals to make sure that merchants did not export these while Britain still needed them. However, by 1670 Britain was able to export cereals to Europe, where living conditions, particularly for the poor, were much worse than in Britain. This was partly the result of the Thirty Years War, 1618-48, which had badly damaged European agriculture.
Trade within Britain itself changed enormously in the seventeenth century The different regions became less economically separate from each other. No place in Britain was more than seventy-five miles from the sea, and by 1690 few places were more than twenty miles from a river or canal. These waterways became important means of transport, allowing each region to develop its own special produce. Kent, for example, grew more fruit and vegetables to export to other regions, and became known as "the garden of England".
Improved transport resulted in a change in buying and selling. Most towns did not have shops before the seventeenth century. They had market days when farmers and manufacturers sold their produce in the town square or marketplace. By 1690, however, most towns also had proper shops. Shopkeepers travelled around the country to buy goods for their shops, which were new and exciting and drew people from the country to see them. Towns which had shops grew larger, while smaller towns without shops remained no more than villages.
London remained far larger than any other town, with more than 500,000 people by 1650. It controlled almost all the sea trade with other countries. The next largest cities, Norwich, Newcastle and Bristol, had only 25,000 each. (London's great plague of 1665 killed 68,000 people in only six months, almost equal to the total population of these three cities.) After the fire of 1666, the richer citizens for the first time had water supplied to their houses, through specially made wooden pipes. The city streets had traffic jams just as bad as today's, and the noise was probably far worse, with the sound of iron-tyred wheels and the hammering of craftsmen.
In London there was a new class of rich "aristocrats", most of whom belonged to the nobility, but not all. Money could buy a high position in British society more easily than in Europe. After 1650 the rich began to meet in the new coffeehouses, which quickly became the meeting places for conversation and politics.
Some of the old nobility, however, did not accept the new rich as equals. While new Stuart yeomen wanted to be gentry, descendants of the older Tudor gentry started to call themselves "squires", the ruling class of the countryside. They did not wish to be confused with the new gentry.
The squires and JPs governed locally during Cromwell's Protectorate, and continued to do so afterwards. They had the power to tax for local purposes, to call out soldiers and to try most criminals. They had the same interests as the government, and were therefore usually willing to pay taxes. As one gentleman said in 1625, "we must not give an example of disobedience to those beneath us".
While the rich of London visited the coffeehouses, the ordinary people went to the drinking houses, called "alehouses", in town and country. These soon became the centre of popular culture, where news and ideas could be passed on. By the end of the century the government had secret informers watching the alehouses and listening for rebellious talk.